Thursday, May 05, 2016

*****Out Of The Hills And Hollows- With The Bluegrass Band The Lally Brothers In Mind

*****Out Of The Hills And Hollows- With The Bluegrass Band The Lally Brothers In Mind  

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman 

You know sometimes what goes around comes around as the old-time expression had it. Take for example Sam Lowell’s youthful interest in folk music back in the early 1960s when it crashed out of exotic haunts like Harvard Square, Ann Arbor, Old Town Chi Town and North Beach/Berkeley out in Frisco Bay Area Town and ran into a lot of kids, a lot of kids like Sam, who were looking for something different, something that they were not sure of but that smelled, tasted, felt, looked like difference from a kind of one-size-fits-all vanilla existence. Oh sure, every generation in their youth since the days when you could draw a distinction between youth and adulthood and have it count has tried to march to its own symbolic beat but this was different, this involved a big mix of things all jumbled together, political, social, economic, cultural, the whole bag of societal distinctions which would not be settled until the end of the decade, maybe the first part of the next. But what Sam was interested then down there in Carver about thirty miles south of Boston was the music, his interest in the other trends did not come until later, much later long after the whole thing had ebbed. 

The way Sam told it one night at his bi-weekly book club where the topic selected for that meeting had been the musical influences, if any, that defined one’s tastes and he had volunteered to speak since he had just read a book, The Mountain View, about the central place of mountain music, for lack of a better term, in the American songbook was that he had been looking for roots as a kid. Musical roots which were a very big concern for a part of his generation, a generation that was looking for roots, for rootedness not just in music but in literature, art, and even in the family tree. Their parents’ generation no matter how long it had been since the first family immigration wave was in the red scare Cold War post-World War II period very consciously ignoring every trace of roots in order to be fully vanilla Americanized. So his generation had to pick up the pieces not only of that very shaky family tree but everything else that had been downplayed during that period.

Since Sam had tired of the lazy hazy rock and roll that was being produced and which the local rock radio stations were force- feeding him and others like him looking to break out through their beloved transistor radios he started looking elsewhere on the tiny dial for something different. That transistor radio for those not in the know was “heaven sent” for a whole generation of kids in the 1950s who could care less, who hated the music that was being piped into the family living room big ass floor model radio which their parents grew up with since it was small, portable and could be held to the ear and the world could go by without bothering you while you were in thrall to the music. That was the start. But like a lot of young people, as he would find out later when he would meet kindred in Harvard Square, the Village, Ann Arbor, Berkeley he had been looking for that something different at just that moment when something called folk music, roots music, actually was being played on select stations for short periods of time each week.

Sam’s lucky station had been a small station, an AM station, from Providence in Rhode Island which he would find out later had put the program on Monday nights from eight to eleven at the request of Brown and URI students who had picked up the folk music bug on trips to the Village (Monday a dead music night in advertising circles then, maybe now too, thus fine for talk shows, community service programs and odd-ball stuff like roots music.) That is where he first heard the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Dave Von Ronk, a guy named Tom Rush from Harvard whom he would hear in person many times over the years, and another guy, Eric Von Schmidt whom he would meet later in one of the Harvard Square coffeehouses that were proliferating to feed the demand to hear folk music, well, cheaply alone or on a date. Basically as he related to his listeners for a couple of bucks at most admission, the price of a cup of coffee to keep in front of you and thus your place, maybe a pastry if alone and just double that up for a date except share the pasty you had your date deal all set for the evening hearing performers perfecting their acts before hitting the A-list clubs).

He listened to it all, liked some of it, other stuff, the more protest stuff he could take or leave depending on the performer but what drew his attention, strangely then was when somebody on radio or on stage performed mountain music, you know, the music of the hills and hollows that came out of Appalachia mainly down among the dust and weeds. Things like Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow, Gold Watch and Chain, Fair and Tender Ladies, Pretty Saro, and lots of instrumentals by guys like Buell Kazee, Hobart Smith, The Muddy River Boys, and some bluegrass bands as well that had now escaped his memory.

This is where it all got jumbled up for him Sam said since he was strictly a city boy, made private fun of the farm boys, the cranberry boggers, who then made up a significant part of his high school and had no interest in stuff like the Grand Ole Opry and that kind of thing, none. Still he always wondered about the source, about why he felt some kinship with the music of the Saturday night red barn, probably broken down, certainly in need of paint, and thus available for the dance complete with the full complement of guitars, fiddles, bass, mandolin and full complement of Jimmy Joe’s just made white lightening, playing plainsong for the folk down in the wind-swept hills and hollows.                                 
As Sam warmed up to his subject he told his audience two things that might help explain his interest when he started to delve into the reasons why fifty years later the sound of that finely-tuned fiddle still beckons him home. The first was that when he had begun his freshman year at Boston University he befriended a guy, Everett Lally, the first day of orientation since he seemed to be a little uncomfortable with what was going on. See Everett was from a small town outside of Wheeling, West Virginia and this Boston trip was only the second time, the first time being when he came up for an interview, he had been to a city larger than Wheeling. So they became friends, not close, not roommate type friends, but they had some shared classes and lived in the same dorm on Bay State Road.

One night they had been studying together for an Western History exam and Everett asked Sam whether he knew anything about bluegrass music, about mountain music (Sam’s term for it Everett was Bill Monroe-like committed to calling it bluegrass). Sam said sure, and ran off the litany of his experiences at Harvard Square, the Village, listening on the radio. Everett, still a little shy, asked if Sam had ever heard of the Lally Brothers and of course Sam said yes, that he had heard them on the radio playing the Orange Blossom Express, Rocky Mountain Shakedown as well as their classic instrumentation version of The Hills of Home.  Everett perked up and admitted that he was one of the Lally Brothers, the mandolin player.

Sam was flabbergasted. After he got over his shock Everett told him that his brothers were coming up to play at the New England Bluegrass Festival to be held at Brandeis on the first weekend of October. Everett invited Sam as his guest. He accepted and when the event occurred he was not disappointed as the Lally Brothers brought the house down. For the rest of that school year Sam and Everett on occasion hung out together in Harvard Square and other haunts where folk music was played since Everett was interested in hearing other kinds of songs in the genre. After freshman year Everett did not return to BU, said his brothers needed him on the road while people were paying to hear their stuff and that he could finish school later when things died down and they lost touch, but Sam always considered that experience especially having access to Everett’s huge mountain music record collection as the lynchpin to his interest.             

Of course once the word got out that Everett Lally was in a bluegrass group, played great mando, could play a fair fiddle and the guitar the Freshman girls at BU drew a bee-line for him, some of them anyway. BU, which later in the decade would be one of the hotbeds of the anti-war movement locally and nationally but then was home to all kinds of different trends just like at campuses around the country, was filled with girls (guys too but for my purposes her the girls are what counts) from New York City, from Manhattan, from Long Island who knew a few things about folk music from forays into the Village. Once they heard Everett was a “mountain man,” or had been at Brandeis and had seen him with his brothers, they were very interested in adding this exotic plant to their collections. Everett, who really was pretty shy although he was as interested in girls as the rest of the guys at school were, told Sam that he was uncomfortable around these New York women because they really did treat him like he was from another world, and he felt that he wasn’t. Felt he was just a guy. But for a while whenever they hung out together girls would be around. Needless to say as a friend of Everett’s when there were two interested girls Sam got the overflow. Not bad, not bad at all.        

But there is something deeper at play in the Sam mountain music story as he also told the gathering that night. It was in his genes, his DNA he said. This was something that he had only found out a few years before. On his father’s side, his grandfather, Homer, whom he had never met since after his wife, Sam’s grandmother, Sara died he had left his family, all grown in any case, without leaving a forwarding address, had actually been born and lived his childhood down in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, down near the fabled Hazard of song and labor legend before moving to the North after World War I. Here is the funny part though when his father and mother Laura were young after World War II and at wits end about where his grandfather might be they travelled down to Prestonsburg in search of him. While they stayed there for a few months looking Sam had been conceived although they left after getting no results on their search, money was getting low, and there were no father jobs around so he had been born in the South Shore Hospital in Massachusetts. So yes, that mountain music just did not happen one fine night but was etched in his body, the whirlwind sounds on Saturday night down amount the hills and hollows with that sad fiddle playing one last waltz to end the evening.                  

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